Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
— Genesis 3:19
Ashes have got to be one of the most misunderstood symbols — or sacramentals — in the Catholic Church, and that’s saying something. Churches will be packed today, with Catholics of every stripe and degree coming forward to be marked with the burned and blessed remains of last year’s palm fronds. You have to admit, it’s a pretty cool thing, but too often the meaning of the mark gets lost.
For some it’s like a talisman, something they must get in order to be protected, like staying away from black cats and open ladders. For others it’s one of those Catholic habits that you keep up long after you’ve stopped going to church. And for still others it’s the equivalent of wearing a NY Giants jersey to work the day after the big game, a little in-your-face, I’m-a-Catholic pride.
In our death-denying society, it’s easy to forget, or ignore, that these ashes on our foreheads are a mark of our mortality. Like the dust rubbed across our skin, we too will disintegrate one day back into the earth, a faint remnant of what we once were.
The other meanings of the ashes aren’t much cheerier: They are the mark of the penitent, a reminder of our sinfulness and weakness. And they remind us and everyone else that we are disciples of Jesus, something that has never been known as an easy, breezy row to hoe even if it is a blessing. If you think about it, we should all be running for the hills when Ash Wednesday rolls around.
And yet, maybe the desire to wear these ashes, even for misguided reasons, should give us hope. People want to be marked with the sign of discipleship. That has to count for something. It’s not so easy walking around town with a big ash cross on your forehead. If you don’t have at least a glancing interest in walking the walk, you’d skip it completely.
Writing in the February issue of Magnificat, Father Richard Veras sums this phenomenon up succinctly:
“Whether or not the meaning of Ash Wednesday is understood, what seems to be acknowledged on this day at the most visceral level is the fact that we belong. Ash Wednesday seems to bring us to the depth of a belonging that cannot be vanquished by any amount of sin, alienation, absence, or dissension.”
So this Ash Wednesday, as we battle for parking spaces in our church lots and jockey for seats in the pews, let’s remember the joyful side of the sometimes-confounding draw of Ash Wednesday. If for even one day, someone is called back to receive the mark of the cross and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”), there is a at least a glimmer of faith — and maybe much, much more.
Ash Wednesday is a day of new beginnings, a day for throwing off our old ways and promising to try to do better in the coming days and weeks. Maybe we can start by remembering that those ashes on our foreheads are much more than a must-have Catholic fashion statement once a year. They are the mark that says we know we are not worthy but we will try to make ourselves worthy for Him before we do, in fact, return to dust.
Blessings as you begin your journey through Lent!